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Rush Hour at the Park

A special place. Since first visiting the park nearly 20 years ago, that’s how I’ve always thought of Glacier National Park. A home to rugged mountains and quick-flowing waterfalls. Bears and Bighorn Sheep. Moose and Mountain Goat. Snowfields in Glacier linger into mid-August (and beyond). Every turn along the famed Going-to-the-Sun Road brings yet another breathtaking view of snowy peaks, deep alpine lakes, expansive fields of wildflowers, vast meadows, and dense pine forests. And watching a star-filled sky at Many Glacier; waiting for a sunrise in the quiet stillness of pre-dawn at Goose Island; or climbing the long trail up to Hidden Lake at first light, provides a sense of solitude unobtainable in many other locations.

I looked forward to experiencing all of that again in my most recent trip to Glacier. What I didn’t expect to find?

Crowds. Huge crowds. The park more packed with people and cars than I’ve ever seen on previous visits. After nine or so in the morning, “driving” on Going-to-the-Sun Road meant enduring bumper-to-bumper traffic for most destinations on the east and west side of the park, a nightmare that continued until late in the afternoon most days.

What about parking? Wait too late in the morning and parking proved nearly impossible. Particularly at Logan’s Pass, a prime location for hiking, seeing wildlife, and taking in breathtaking views. During my two weeks in the park, I never saw the rangers turn off the flashing signs indicating that the Logan’s Pass parking lot was “Full.” And on numerous occasions, rangers closed the lot to incoming traffic. People determined to visit Logan’s Pass parked on the sides of the road (legally and illegally) as far as a mile and a half away—as far east as Lunch Creek, if you’re familiar with the park—and hiked all the way up the relatively steep road. Elsewhere in Glacier, parking proved nearly as difficult at most other destinations and trailheads—along Going-to-the-Sun Road, at Many Glacier, and even at Two Medicine.

Personally, I have mixed emotions about seeing so many people at Glacier. On the one hand, I’m thrilled that more people take the time to visit and enjoy our national parks. People should see and appreciate the stunning natural beauty and rich geological history evident in such places as Glacier, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Zion, Yosemite, Olympic, and so many other national parks. The more people of this country appreciate natural environments, the more likely they will be to favor their preservation for future generations to enjoy as well.

But crowded conditions exact a toll, and the parks lack not only the manpower to manage the increased attendance but also the funds to keep up with necessary road, trail, and building repairs.

As for attendance, Daniel Matthews tells us that:

Each of the most popular National Parks had over 3.5 million visitors in 2015. For all of them, attendance has continued to rise since 2005. The Great Smoky Mountains, on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, hit an all-time high of 10.7 million visitors, a rise of 17 percent.

And keeping the parks clean, the roads paved, the bathrooms functioning, and the trails safe adds up:

The price-tag for that maintenance, for all the parks combined, is $11.9 billion. Congress has been able to appropriate around $3 billion per year — but that’s not enough. Combined with entrance fees, donations, and concession sales, appropriations still can’t cover the rising cost of wear and tear.

The problem of overcrowding for most national parks seems to get worse every year. Earlier this month, Montana’s Flathead Beacon announced that Glacier had just set a new all-time attendance record. In July alone “818,500 people visited the park…almost 113,000, or 19 percent, more than last July.” In fact, “July became the third month in a row with record crowds this year. A total of 178,200 people visited Glacier in May, a new all-time record for the month, while nearly 430,000 people visited the park last month [in June], 15,000 more than last year.”

In Yellowstone National Park, attendance figures have topped 3 million every year since 2007; 2015 saw an all-time record of 4,097,709 visitors <>; and this year, attendance is on pace to exceed last year’s all-time high “with visitation numbers up 6.5 percent in 2016 compared to last year.”

In it’s “State of the Park” report for 2016, rangers in Zion National Park note that “The past five year trend in visitation from 2010–2014 has shown a 19.37% increase. Increased visitor density accelerates wear and diminishes facility lifecycles. The park now routinely receives negative comments about crowding. The number of resource impacts monitored by staff such as campsite sprawl, human waste, additional canyoneering anchors, illegal campfire scars, and braided or multiple trails have greatly increased in recent years.” The Salt Lake Tribune reports that “park crowding has achieved epic proportions at some of Utah’s marquee destinations,” which include Zion, Bryce, Arches, and Canyonlands National Parks and seven national monuments.

And as a whole, in 2015, the national parks and monuments saw “a whopping 14.5 million-person increase from just the year before.”

Traffic congestion represents one of the largest problems posed by the nearly annual record attendance levels, and many of the parks—Arches, Canyonlands, Zion, Grand Teton, and Yosemite, among them—have called on the public to offer solutions.

Among the possibilities that I’ve seen in print or heard in the parks?

• Increasing entrance fees. (Many regular visitors to the national parks consider them an incredible bargain and consider the amount provided by Congress to maintain them—less than 1% of the national budget—an absolute disgrace.)
• Implementing reservation systems at some of the more popular parks for, at least, the busiest visitation periods during the year or on particularly congested roadways.
• Setting a daily limit for the number of people/cars that can enter the park during peak season.
• Making shuttle service mandatory for part or most of the year. (This is already the case in such parks as Denali, Zion, and Grand Canyon National Parks.)

Overcrowding in the National Parks will likely continue for the foreseeable future, especially at the most popular parks. But if you want to avoid the crowds, you could consider visiting our national parks outside of their peak visitation seasons. Or you could visit some of the less-visited parks.

You’ll find more information about overcrowding in the National Parks in the following articles:

National Parks Face Over-Crowding, Degradation
July Attendance Shatters All-Time Record in Glacier National Park
Yellowstone National Park Visitor Statistics
Yellowstone National Park on Track for Another Record Year
State Of The Park: Zion National Park Facing Some Serious Issues
National Park Service Faces Crowding Now, Apathy to Come in its Second Century
Should we limit visitors at national parks?
Top 10 Most Visited National Parks
America’s hidden gems: The 20 least-crowded national parks in 2009
Long Lines, Packed Campsites And Busy Trails: Our Crowded National Parks
Yosemite Overcrowded – Problems & Solutions
Arches and Canyonlands National Parks Seek Public Input on Traffic Congestion Management Plan
Have Solution for Congested Parking at Arches, Canyonlands? Share it.
Rocky Mountain National Park Wants To Reduce Overcrowding, Noise
Traffic Congestion Management Plan for Arches and Canyonlands National Parks
Zion National Park to Hold Public Meetings on Crowding
Allow Popular National Parks to Charge for Attendance